I m p o r t a n c e   o f   s o u n d

Can anyone hear me? Sound, the forgotten twin in filmmaking. Every Video Content Agency should spend more time watching horror films. Take The Blair Witch Project. It was promoted on the basis that it cost less than $50,000 to make: the whole thing was shot on a camcorder. Look at the end credits, however, and a different story emerges. Sure enough, the pictures were indeed shot very cheaply. The effort put into the sound was on an entirely different scale. The credits for everyone involved ran on and on. If you can bring yourself to watch the film, try something interesting. After twenty minutes or so (just as you’re beginning to get spooked), turn the sound off altogether. The creepy atmosphere disappears entirely and the whole movie becomes somewhat laughable.
For some reason, sound is the ugly sister in filmmaking. Far less effort is put into capturing sound than pictures, even in high-budget TV dramas. I have often worked with sound recordists on shoots who sit at the back of the set, earphones on and seemingly in a world of their own. Occasionally during a take they wince and glance over their shoulders at an invisible object. At the end of the take I ask the usual questions of the camera crew and they give the thumbs up. I then ask the sound man and he says quietly (as if it was his fault) “bit of a racket from a motorbike during that one”. He later told me that few directors ever take the trouble to ask the sound department for a thumbs up, despite the fact that a sound issue is often much harder to sort out later than a picture issue.
The exception to this is any director who has ever done a lot of work on radio. A top sound engineer once told me that radio is the most visual medium of all. Listen to the afternoon drama on BBC Radio 4 if you want proof of this. The mind can create whole worlds just from a few sound effects. In Miyasaki’s Oscar-winning animated feature “Spirited Away”, a rainstorm is brilliantly convincing when seen in surround sound. That’s because they took the trouble to put the heavy-rain-on-a-roof onto the front speakers, and the totally different sound of an overflowing gutter onto the rear speakers. In “Saving Private Ryan” the opening half hour has devastating effect because the sound of every single bullet mixes from rear to front or left to right. You really believe you’re in the middle of the battle.
At the other end of the scale, too many video companies expect their cameramen to film an interview and record the sound at the same time. They use a mid-price microphone, set the recording level once and put it somewhere that will more-or-less work. If the resulting quality was pictures, they’d never accept it. Once or twice I’ve been forced to work the same way and it’s never worth it simply because of the time I’ve had to spend in the studio afterwards, trying to get rid of background noise or edit, nip and tuck. Far better to get it right in the first place. Unlike pictures, great sound quality becomes invisible: perfection just sounds normal.
So if you’re considering commissioning video content that involves sound (even just a humble testimonial interview), expect to find some extra costs in the budget. Have a look at this video for a £2.3m waterside property. The brief was to blur the boundaries between the property itself and its location. Instead of using music to create the mood, sound effects were used. As time goes by, the sounds recorded at the property were mixed up with the sounds of the nearby river and sea. Then watch it again without any sound at all. That’s why it’s worth paying for something you can’t see.

< No dialogue, no music. Just sound effects to create a strong atmosphere. Watch it then watch it again without any sound at all. That’s why it’s worth paying for something you can’t see. (film by chrismugford.com)


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